Why She Feels Fat

Understanding Your Loved One's Eating Disorder and How You Can Help

by Johanna Marie McShane & Tony Paulson

What Do Her Behaviors Mean?

Excerpt from Why She Feels Fat

Acquainting yourself with information about the symptoms of eating disorders is essential. Knowing warning signs and what to look for allows you to keep an eye out for potential trouble. At the same time, though, they're only part of the picture. Understanding what is behind your loved one's behaviors, what they mean to her, and how she experiences herself in the world can be enormously helpful to everyone involved.

If you were to ask, she'd probably tell you her food-related behaviors make sense to her and that she sees no reason to stop them. But, how can your loved one honestly believe this when what she's doing is so clearly harmful and dangerous? It's hard to imagine how anyone could truthfully defend starving or bingeing and purging. Why does she do this to herself?

It's not that she wants to be doing these things, but rather that the behaviors that go along with the eating disorder are incredibly helpful to her. Over time, as the illness becomes increasingly entrenched in her life, she comes to believe its presence is essential and that, in fact, she would be lost without it.

I'm nothing without my eating disorder. I don't exist.
I don't know what I'd do without it.
I'm sure I'd die if I couldn't have it.

"I Feel Fat"

One phrase that is often repeated by many individuals with eating disorders is "I feel fat." The choice of words here is interesting to note because "fat" is not a feeling. Rather it is code for a host of feelings that are unacceptable or uncomfortable for your loved one to allow herself to experience or express.

Thus, when she says she feels fat, what she is really saying is that she feels something else that she doesn't know how to say in words. Because fat is considered bad in our society, what she might be saying is, "I'm a bad person" or "I hate my body" or "I am angry." Her "fat" code distills any and all complex emotional states she may encounter into one clear, simple manageable idea: I feel fat. This statement then becomes a mantra that can be used in any situation: to justify decisions, to avoid taking action, or, most importantly, to circumvent feelings. Her recovery will entail learning to decipher the underlying messages of this "language of fat," as well as learning to express a whole new vocabulary of honest feelings.